What a spring it's been for Spurs Sports & Entertainment: The Austin Toros captured their first NBA Development League championship, the Rampage won their first American Hockey League playoff series, the Silver Stars secured a prized guard-forward with the fifth pick in the WNBA Draft, and the Spurs stormed into the postseason with 50 wins for an NBA-record 13th consecutive season.
"All the stars are aligned this year," says SS&E President Rick Pych. "It's been great for us."
It's been one blast of cheers after another. Consider:
- Despite playing with an ever-changing roster in the regular season and facing elimination six times in the postseason, the resilient Toros won the D-League trophy on April 28. Point guard Justin Dentmon scored 30 points in the championship game -- a 122-110 road victory over the Los Angeles D-Fenders -- and earned league Most Valuable Player honors. Forward Eric Dawson added 21 points and 10 rebounds and claimed the D-League Impact Player of the Year award.
- After losing their first postseason game to the Chicago Wolves, the Rampage came back to win the series on the road with a thrilling double overtime finish in Game 5. Roman Derlyuk scored with 5:28 to play in the second extra session, and goalie Jacob Markstrom stopped 37 of 39 shots in a 3-2 victory. The Rampage followed that historic triumph by defeating Oklahoma City, 6-4, in the first game of the Western Conference Semifinals.
- The Silver Stars enhanced an already strong roster on April 16 by drafting the multi-talented Shenise Johnson from the University of Miami. Johnson, who averaged 17 points and eight rebounds at UM, joins All-Star veterans Becky Hammon and Sophia Young plus two members of last year's WNBA All-Rookie Team -- Danielle Robinson and Danielle Adams. The Silver Stars are seeking their sixth straight postseason trip.
- The Spurs continue setting new standards of excellence in the Tim Duncan era. They've made the playoffs every year since Duncan's rookie season (1997-98), won four NBA titles and own the best 15-year regular season run in NBA history with a .702 winning percentage. That percentage ranks as the highest among all teams in the four major professional sports. As Shaquille O'Neal recently said on TNT, "The San Antonio Spurs definitely have the blueprint on how to win a championship."
SS&E also has a blueprint for creating must-see entertainment. Before tip-off, many fans take pictures with the Silver Dancers and secure their autographs. During games, huge crowds pack the Icehouse in the H-E-B FanZone, which has bar stools overlooking the arena, 55 big television screens, 10 pop a shot stations and Wii game stations. After each playoff game, more than 1,500 fans attend Overtime, a popular bar that features a live band, food and drinks. "The most rewarding thing to all of us on our end," Pych says, "is to see fans genuinely have a very good time coming here and know the experience is jam-packed with fun."
Winning, of course, makes every game fun. And management has created a winning culture for all four franchises. The Toros' attribute part of their success to their close partnership with the Spurs. The Toros, for example, run the same system as the Spurs. So when a roster spot opens on the parent team, a Toro can more easily matriculate to San Antonio. At the same time, when an injured Spur needs to work back into playing shape, he can rehab in Austin.
"We try to keep the continuity between the two teams as seamless as possible," says Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.
Buford applauds the work of Toros coach Brad Jones as well as assistants Taylor Jenkins and Alex Lloyd. They managed a litany of roster moves, with players such as Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson, Lance Thomas, Lester Hudson, Dentmon and Dawson matriculating at various times to the NBA.
"The task of playing well with all the roster changes is a unique challenge," Buford says. "But Brad, Taylor and Alex performed at a high level throughout the season. The Toros did a great job of staying within their system and playing to their strengths."
The organization also impressed. "The Toros grew their business as much as 30 percent in some areas this year," Buford says. "There are a lot of very talented people producing at a high level and they are not just the players on the floor."
The Rampage boasts impressive organizational strength as well. During a news conference in July, general manager Dale Tallon said it was time to bring the Stanley Cup to South Florida and the Calder Cup to San Antonio.
The Panthers, who hadn't been to the NHL playoffs since 2000, advanced this season. And the Rampage, which had never advanced past the first round, are battling Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Semifinals.
"As excited as we are about this season, we are even more excited about other young talent in the Panthers organization, either drafted or playing in juniors, that we'll see in time in San Antonio," Pych says. "This year is just a glimpse of great things to come."
The Silver Stars begin their season on May 19 at Tulsa. Hopes remain high for a deep run in the playoffs because of a strong blend of veterans and youth assembled by coach and general manager Dan Hughes, the only coach in WNBA history to take three franchises to the playoffs. His accomplishment are remarkable: He is the winningest coach in the history of both the Silver Stars and Cleveland Rockers and has collected the third most victories in WNBA history.
He was named the league's coach of the year in 2007, led the Silver Stars to the WNBA Finals in 2008 and helped the team host the 2011 WNBA All-Star Game. In the past two seasons alone, five of Hughes' players have earned All-Star berths. "Dan and his group have a lot of really exciting young talent," Buford says. "He continues to be a terrific leader for the Silver Stars."
From one franchise to the next, strong leadership is in place. And from one franchise to the next, winning stokes excitement and celebration.